Mountain Biking: Then and Now

Mountain Biking: Then and Now

By: Dave Hatoff Comments: 0

Mountain biking has certainly come a long way from back in the day of riding rigid bikes on secret trails.  Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, mountain biking was niche sport taken up by most locals in mountain towns to give them their fix of flying through the woods like they did on skis on those coveted powder days.  It was a great way to stay in shape for the up and coming ski season or help you recover from that knee injury that you sustained from winter.   If you were a mountain biker back then, you felt like a renegade skateboarder in the 70’s or snowboarder in the early 90’s, who were looked down upon by most people as you were going against the normal grain.  Rider: Tom Murray RIP Location: Clinic Trail creek cross in Waitsfield, VT

It was a sport that was meant for survival of the fittest riders who did not mind coming back muddy, beaten up and bloodied. Group rides usually took place on midweek early evenings from mountain town bike shops, like Irie Cycles here in Stowe and Stark Mountain Bike Works in Waitsfield just to name a few.  Local mountain bikers were a special group back then, often a tight-knit group who did not like to have “outsiders” come into the group, and when new people did show up, they were put through the ringer to see if they could take the punishment and keep up.  No starting out easy, it was usually straight up the toughest climbs and down the most demanding downhills.  It was either keep up, and shut up or be left behind to find your way out of the woods. Trails were not mapped out back then and it was often very confusing to find your way out if you were not with experienced riders who knew the trails.  Many of these riders, were the people who actually built the trails, with many of them being on private land that were unbeknown from the land owners who owned the soil.  If you were lucky and had a mutual friend that were part of the core group, they would usually wait for you at intersections while they were taking a safety break, but as soon as you got there, they were off and running without you letting you catch your breath.  If you were able to finish the ride and stay within sight of the pack, you would be invited back for the next time.  It was a test to see if you could pass the initial “test.” More often than not, most newcomers did not come back, because they were to severely ridden into the ground, got hurt, or were just intimidated by the overall testosterone that everyone was feeding off.  It was true test of how much pain and suffering you could endure in a 2-4 hour time period.  For the few brave souls who would come back, you were almost always in the back of the pack, giving it all you had just to hang in.

But after a while, if you kept showing up after getting beaten up, you began to earn some respect from the group, and eventually got stronger and became more familiar with the terrain, maybe gaining ground from the back of the pack to the middle.  Battle scars from rides gave you a sense of pride and belonging, and when your bike got damaged from a ride that needed a fixing, (Which happened quite often back in those days) you actually got eye contact from the jaded local bike shop mechanic, who may have even called you by your name.  Your bike got bumped up ahead of the tourists, and sometimes even the price was negotiable or even open for trade.  You were building kindship into a special circle of people, those who were in the know of those secret trails and the best lines to take to ride them cleanly.  It was like being part of local tribe or a members only club, like your local powder posse of seasoned skiers who only shared their secret stashes with people that they knew really well and trusted.  Eventually, if you stuck around long enough, you became a regular of that group, got invited to people’s homes, locals only parties and being introduced to the singles in town.

But being part of this club was no easy task, you had to put your time in and pay your dues, usually in blood, sweat and sometimes tears.  But being an accepted as a local in town does not come easy, it can take years of perseverance and determination if you are passionate about your craft, which for most in ski towns is either biking or skiing or both. 

Now let’s get to the bikes we rode.  Bikes were pretty basic back then.  Hardtails were the only game in town at first, with cross country geometry.  Handlebars were straight and narrow and many chose to use climbing bars on the ends which helped changing up your hand position on climbs but eventually would get caught on trees and trail overgrowth which could turn things ugly quite quickly.  Front shocks were just coming into the fray along with clipless pedals.  Both of these equipment technologies helped make riding easier.  Brakes were cantilever and then came the V-brake, both which worked pretty well until things got muddy and wet, then you were just holding on for dear life.   Bike parts were more fragile back then, constant adjustments had to be made on your bike such as brake pad alignment, fixing flats and truing wheels as your bike took as much punishment as your body did at times.  Trails were very rugged, with most being a combination of off-camber roots and rocks, sketchy bridges with techy climbs and descents with not much flow.  Most mountain bike rides consisted of riding on dirt roads or double track, with long sustained steep climbs until you eventually got to the single track. Large trail networks did not exist back then so you were on road and double track more than you were on single track.  Once you did get on trail it was real treat.  Along downhill was usually 15-20 minutes worth of riding under the canopy of the woods.

Overt time, more singletrack trail was built, along with more handmade features such as skinnies, teeter totters, log rides, jumps and rock and wooden bridges being built into the trails.  To help with wet conditions on wooden bridges, scraps from roofing materials were nailed into wooden bridges to help with traction, old tubes were also squeezed in to fill holes and gaps in the wood.   Places like Waterbury, Moretown, Waitsfield and Stowe has lots of natural rock features on the trails which made the riding even more special and challenging, especially when things got wet.  Back then trails did not close when it rained, and it was usually game on regardless of the conditions if it was a weekly shop ride.  If you did not come back, bloodied and muddied, along with a few hike a bikes on your shoulder, it wasn’t considered by many to a “real” mountain bike ride.  Places like Perry Hill in Waterbury in the beginning featured long, double track climbs to the top, with only Burning Spear, Rastaman, and Campfire being the only trails that existed at the time to go back down. 

Rider: Peter CozzI Location: Rastaman Trail bridge in Waterbury, VT

There was a reason why mountain biking back then was not as popular as it is today, it was really hard.  Trails were not smooth and buffed out, the geometry of the bikes was really not set up well to handle tough downhills, and without front and rear suspension and dropper posts, you were holding on for dear life.  I’m glad I was exposed to the sport in its early days and it’s nice to see the advancements in bike technology and geometry, as well as trail design and environmental education. 

Today, the sport has exploded to the masses, and it not uncommon to see people from 7 to 70 years of age out in our local Cady Hill trail network in Stowe on any given day of the week.  The Florence trail or what many call  “Flow” in Stowe was tracked of having over 10,000 riders last year blasting its fast and smooth flowy downhill.  This is largely due to bike technology and design as well trail building technique and the use of machines instead of all human power in making the trails.  The trails are also more environmentally friendly and drain much better from their design and hold up over time much better than they used too.  Trails are also much more user friendly too from smooth, switch back climbs rather than going straight uphill to flowy and bermed out downhills rather than rock and root infested off camber clunkiness.  Large networks of single track now exist where you can ride 3-4 hours and never hit a piece of road or touch the same trail twice.  Slacked head tubes, dialed in full suspension bikes all climb as well as a hardtails do now and descend even better.  The bikes technology allows the rider not to be as precise with their line choices as they once had too and the suspension can suck up many mistakes and smooth out rock gardens and rough landings.  Flats and mechanicals have been drastically reduced too so you spend more time riding than fixing things on the trail.  

For those with life altering injuries or hip or knee replacements that would otherwise not be able to ride a conventual mountain bike, adaptive and E-bikes have opened up a whole new door for these folks to ride the trails too and discover the joy and companionship that the sport brings to so many walks of life.

Trail organizations, towns and its business are now working together to ensure its place in both driving visitors to resort towns and non-resort towns in Vermont.  Just about every town close to or in the mountains has a mountain bike club or trail partnership with paid directors, employees and volunteers who raise money for these non-profits through membership and event drives, keeping their budgets healthy and raising money for yearly trail maintenance and new trails to be built keep expanding their networks, all on legalized and approved land.  Mountain biking has become a key economic driver that has built businesses, turned small towns into now destination places, and created jobs for folks in and outside of the bike industry. Weekly shop rides still exist are now more popular and larger than ever, with men’s and women’s specific groups, with mountain, gravel and road ride bike options.  It’s not uncommon to see groups of 50-60 people who gather for a weekly shop ride, then gather after for a few beers and some food at a local restaurant or bar.  Annual bike festivals, events, and fundraisers are all the rage and can gather 500-600 people, all building a sense of community and mountain bike culture that is so strong. 

Here is to another 30 years of mountain biking innovation, stoke, community and culture.

Photos: John Atkinson 

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